Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Magic Quilts


What were those Maine girls up to?

Letter from an 11-year-old to the Maine Farmer

Tecumseh, Nebraska, 1883

Dorcas Society quilting at the Kate Douglas Wiggin House in Hollis, Maine

Searching through old newspapers for Magic Quilt brings up many references, many from Maine.

Like this one, the earliest I've found from the summer of 1870.
Fortunately we get a description of Josie Belle's patch-work---it's what we might call a Charm Quilt.
And that makes sense---charms and magic.

No two alike

April, 1870 Rutland, Vermont

In Vermont they used the term Charm Quilt. These New England stitchers seem to be the leaders in the fashion for charm quilts, whether of 999 pieces or more. The key is the idea that no two pieces are alike.

Fiction syndicated in 1881

Charm Quilt, 1880-1920, American Folk Art Museum

Jinny Beyer called these quilts to our attention in her 1985 book The Scrap Look

Ellsworth, Maine

1884 fair results, Lewiston, Maine
1280 diamond squares by Carrie Ryerson

And apparently the shape didn't have to be a square.

Crib quilt

Advice from the Maine Farmer's readers

The fashion for charm quilts with an abundance of different prints spread throughout the country in the 1870-1920 period and into the mid-20th-century although few achieved the goal of "No-two-alike." 

Maine Memory Network
Lewiston, Maine was home to many mills.

It's interesting that the style appeared in New England with its print cotton mills. One would expect to see fewer in the Southern states where the mills specialized in woven pattern and solid cottons.

Massachusetts  Project & the Quilt Index
Anna Swain Coffin, Nantucket

1872 Lewiston, Maine, Journal

But as wholesalers began distributing "quilt bundles" and other packages of factory cutaway cottons through the mail the quiltmaker's proximity to a fabric mill was no longer a necessity.

1935, Bangor, Maine

Iowa Project & the Quilt Index
Emma Long Pisel, Johnson County, Iowa

One might guess these magic quilts with their variety of materials were a direct response to the factory systems of the late-19th-century.

More about Charm/Magic Quilts:


  1. Very interesting articles. I must admit that although I grew up in Maine and have made dozens of charm quilts over the years, I have never heard the term "magic quilts". I will now have to dig through my old "Hearth and Home" magazines to see if I can find a reference. Thanks!

  2. I made a modest try at a charm quilt a while back, but I gave up. I couldn't easily keep track to avoid duplicates and I realized it would take years and years to accumulate enough. I am a patient quilter but evidently I have limits!

    Thanks for the very interesting article!